10 Things Only Kids Of Mentally Ill Parents Will Understand


I never understood that I grew up with a mentally ill parent until a few years ago. I knew very well that my dad was prone to outbursts and extreme highs and lows. As the oldest child in the divorce, I consciously remember taking on the brunt of his anger during his outbursts to shield my younger brother and sister from what was going on.

We all suspected that my dad was unstable at the time, but it wasn’t until recently that my sister found out he is now medicated. I don’t know all the details of his condition, but I can promise you that he did need help. I really hope he has gotten help today. We are not close at the present moment because of everything I have just described, but we are working toward some sort of relationship.

I think the worst thing about growing up with a parent with a mental illness is the unpredictability. I don’t even know if my dad would remember the stories, or if he has blocked them out because they were so unpleasant, but I do remember him leaving me and my brother and sister several times when he was upset.

One time, he drove away and left us at a fast food restaurant with a group from church. I wasn’t old enough to drive yet, and I tried to put on a brave face, even though I was panicking inside. I didn’t know if he was ever coming back or how we would get home. It was also before the age of cell phones, so I didn’t know who to call. He did come back about an hour later before anyone suspected that we were left there alone and acted like nothing had happened.

It’s tough to talk about these stories, but they need to be said. I came across an amazing anonymous post entitled, “What I want you to know about having a parent who is mentally ill.” Based on the post and my own personal life, I’ve compiled a list of 10 things only kids of mentally ill parents can understand:

1. Having a mentally ill parent is like having a parent with a physical illness that you can’t talk about.

2. “Unpredictable” is the best way to describe living with a mentally ill parent every day.

3. You may not fear for your safety, but you’ll always fear the worst will happen.

4. When the good days are good, they are really good. When the bad days are bad, they’re worse than you can imagine.

5. The good times make you question if the bad times really were that bad… until the next outburst.

6. Things can change on a dime.

7. Public outings are stressful because you don’t know what will happen next.

8. You feel guilty when you wonder if it’s better to have an absent parent or a mentally ill parent.

9. You feel guilty when you wish for a physical disability because it seems easier.

10. Even when you’re with your parent, you still feel so alone.

(Image: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock)

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You can reach this post's author, Bethany Ramos, on twitter.
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  • Hibbie

    Having a mentally ill parent is definitely tough, especially if there are problems with diagnosis and treatment. You hit the nail on the head about the hush-hush nature of it all. One thing I’d add to that list is that the child often has to become the parent at a moment’s notice.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Agree so much.

    • Hibbie

      Damn, these are the most depressing .gifs in the history of Mommyish :(

  • Ursi

    I feel for you. Mental illness is rampant in our family and my generation was the first to seek help from therapy and meds. From the other side of it and with the help of therapy I can look on those in my family who never sought outside help with more sympathy– it’s a horrible burden to bear and growing up in the 50s and 60s didn’t prepare them for it.

    I’m so glad your father is medicated now. It makes all the difference in the world.

    I encourage all those who have mental illness in the family that affects them personally to seek therapy themselves, even if they don’t suffer from any disorders, because coming to terms with it can be a lifelong process.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I am in therapy! Thank you :)

  • Jallun-Keatres

    I made a good friend in college and her mom has schizophrenia. Though I don’t have any personal experience myself, neurology is my “thang” so I get it as much as an observer can. I loved it when she would come rant to me because both of us felt like I was one of the few people who wouldn’t judge and just listen. She has dealt with pretty much all of this and more and the worse part is that for years her mom was treated for the wrong kind (like manic instead of something else, I forget) so her brain is like, double wired wrong now. I guess her mom has become comfortable not getting treatment which has led to them having a rocky relationship at best.

    Technically my childhood best friend had the same thing happen to her mom (it runs in her family, starts at ~40) but we were no longer friends by the time things got really bad. Thankfully, according to little things I see on facebook, she is doing much better.

  • Cassandra Hough

    My sister and I haven’t had any contact at all with our mother in three years, and for us it’s 100x better to have an absent parent than an ill one who won’t seek help. But that void will haunt us forever, and a lot of people don’t understand that. I think the fact that we choose to not have her in our lives (which is mutual-she hasn’t made any attempt whatsoever) honestly frightens/intimidated people.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I really do understand that. I haven’t seen my dad in 7 years because he also didn’t try very hard, and I may see him when he visits my sister this summer. I felt bad about that too, even though it was self-preservation not to see him.

    • Cassandra Hough

      It’s so hard to explain to others who ask about it, so I usually just avoid it altogether. It’s far too complicated. But I see the look on people’s faces, like “how could you just cut your mom out like that.” It scares them- like I’m super coldhearted or something. What they don’t know is that if she’s in my life, I can no longer exist in a functional, productive way. I don’t feel bad about it, but my mom is consciously manipulative.

    • clarissa

      I totally get it. I see my parents occasionally, mainly because they both live twenty minutes away(not together). People don’t understand how I can live so close to them and not go see them. It’s because it stresses me out. I have an anxiety disorder that’s mostly under control, but I start freaking out when I’m around them. No amount of xanax can fix that much anxiety. People who come from “normal families” don’t get it. Some people are toxic. Sometimes those toxic people are family.

    • Psych Student

      It sounds like you are doing exactly what you should be doing – taking care of yourself!

  • Valerie

    Oh honey. It breaks my heart to read this and to think of you like that- afraid and not feeling secure as a child. I am so sorry. I don’t have experience with this but you know I am here for you always. And hearing your stories benefits people who didn’t go through this kind of thing by broadening our understanding- it makes me very grateful for my childhood experience where I knew I had parents I could depend on. I never thought about what a gift that is. And you are giving it to your boys too, which is wonderful. Big huge internet hugs. Until I can squeeze you in person, that is. :-)

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you!!! Your friendship means so much to me, and your support helps more than you know. xoxoxo

  • Jessifer

    My mother is not mentally ill but her mother is, so indirectly, I’ve seen the impact it has had on her. I’m not sure what my grandmother has because she’s refused to seek help, although we suspect she may be bipolar. It’s interesting, being the grandchild of someone who is mentally ill, because I always got to see my grandmother at her best. When she started acting loopy, my mother would promptly whisk us away. I’ve seen some ups and downs but never like my mother experienced when she was young. It’s hard to consolidate the image of they way I perceive her vs. how my mother perceives her.

    How did it affect my mother? Well for one, it made her unable to cope with my depression I had as a teenager, because she was too absorbed dealing with her own mother. It makes her feel torn between wanting to help her (she’s the only one left who’s willing to do it), and simply wash her hands of her. It impacts my sister and I because she feels we’re the only people in her life she can talk to about it, so we spend hours on the phone with my mom talking things through and listening to her vent. We told her she needs to see a therapist but she thinks that only my grandmother needs to do that, because after all, she’s the mentally ill one, not her.

    Mental illness trickles down throughout the entire family, even those who don’t have the disease. I hope you have found healthy ways to cope with the ordeal. I think the fact that you are willing to talk about your experiences is a great start :)

    • Guets

      Totally random but isn’t it amazing to see how other people who aren’t living “in it” respond when they find out things are bad? I recall my dad having a huge fight, taking all of his pills and all the booze in the house and leaving. He called from a pay phone because he “wanted to say goodbye”. My mom obviously freaking out called his mother. My Grandma just said “you guys need a vacation” like it was no big deal. I still can’t believe that was her response.

  • anon

    Insert “spouse” for parent and everything you wrote is exactly how I feel almost every day. The good times are great and give you hope for the future, but the bad times feel like living in a war zone and not knowing when the next bomb will drop. And you don’t feel like you can talk about it with friends or family like you could if your spouse had a more accepted illness or disability because there’s such a stigma on mental illness. So you keep it all bottled up and put on a brave/fake front and make excuses for your spouse and feel like a total fraud. It’s awful, but thank you for writing about this. I know I’m not the only reader who will completely identify.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I am so sorry. I really hope you can find someone to support you in this! You are not alone. :)

    • biggerthanthesound

      I just went through this nightmare and I have been officially divorced since April 10th. I can not even believe the life I am living right now. It was really hard at first because, as you know, dealing with a spouses mental illness consumes your entire life and to not be able to make sure they are okay is almost debilitating. But. I am FREE. The scary part is, it was his idea for the divorce and I would still be living that way today had he not wanted to divorce.
      I don’t know if you have children or not, but I thought i was shielding them from everything and they were fine. I was wrong. They were suffering and it was affecting them at school. My two oldest are in Kindergarten and 2nd grade and at their last parent teacher conference, both teachers commented on the significant positive changes they have noticed in their work and with friends. I had no idea and neither did their teachers because they never had a life like the one we have now.

      My ex has officially checked out of our children’s lives and has not seen them in almost two months. He is not medicated (diagnosed with schizophrenia and is bipolar) and even though he has spent time in inpatient for a couple of weeks for the last three years running, he feels he no longer has a problem because I was the one who made him crazy.

      You do not have to live this life. I know you are sticking it out because you would never leave someone who is suffering from an illness. But, if your spouse is not taking medication or seeking treatment, than it is not your responsibility to take care of an adult who is not doing anything to get well. The way you are being treated is mental abuse, plain and simple. There is a better life for you…. trust me, i’m on the other side and it is fucking amazing. XOXO

    • Rachel Sea

      My wife had a terrible bout of depression a couple years ago, which she hates to talk about, even with me, because of the shame of it. Even though she knows she has no control over her brain chemicals, she’s ashamed that she was so depressed at a time when her life was pretty great. Because she won’t talk about it, I don’t talk about it, because even though it effects me, I could never out her as having depression.

    • Psych Student

      I often think about starting support groups for partners of [insert problem here]. It’s (comparatively) easy for people with a disorder (identified patient, IP) to get treatment for whatever is happening in their lives, but it’s easy to forget about how difficult it is for the significant others. The partners don’t get the kind of emotional support they need, which may be because the IP is not capable of doing so, but partners need support and need help in dealing with the extra struggles of having a mentally ill partner on top of standard relationship stuff. I wish you the best of luck!

  • Isfn2006

    xD true story.

    • Bob D. Davis

      kiss my butt

  • Megan Zander

    Oh B. Huge hug for writing this. I last time I talked to my biological father was almost 4 years ago.I told him in order to have a relationship I wanted him to show me a clean drug test and proof that he was in therapy, He told me to go F myself and hung up. Growing up I never wanted him around. He lived in a big Victorian house, and my sister and I found a built in dresser that we could pull the drawers out of and climb into the hollow space between the walls to hide when things got really bad. As the oldest, I know exactly what you mean by taking the brunt of it to protect your siblings. I admire you for going to therapy for yourself and for speaking out about what you went through, it just confirms how brave and wonderful you are. And if you ever need to, I will totally commiserate with you, preferably over some yummy adult beverages.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you, and I am so sorry you had to go through this too!! That story is heartbreaking. :( You are also so wonderful, and YES PLEASE to drinks very soon! :)

    • Valerie

      Ugh, I want to hug you both. :-(

    • Megan Zander

      Yeah, about that…would you mind very much emailing me at meganazander@gmail.com ?

    • Valerie

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    • Megan Zander

      I facetime, so I’m sure I couldn’t figure skype out.

    • Bethany Ramos

      DO IT!

    • Megan Zander

      PEER PRESSURE!! Just kidding, I just signed up.

    • Bethany Ramos


    • Valerie


    • Valerie

      OMG, DO IT!!!

    • Valerie

      And I just sent you my “real” name so you can search me on Skype :-)

    • Megan Zander

      Done. I added you to my contacts, at least I think it did.

    • Butt Trophy Recipient

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    • Megan Zander


    • Butt Trophy Recipient

      Remember, it’s for your person use only. Don’t share!

    • Megan Zander

      You mean besides Instagram and Facebook right?

    • Bethany Ramos

      Make up a fake name and get on the Skype jam!

    • Valerie

      He really should dooo it. I can’t imagine someone making better use of all those emoticons and dancing ninjas.

    • Valerie

      That would be a great addition to our Skype party

    • Guest

      @randomnba5:disqus Make up a fake name and get on the Skype jam!

    • Valerie

      OMG, who is this?? Lol.

    • Bethany Ramos

      ME – but I tried to delete because it wouldn’t tag properly. Technology fail :(

    • Valerie

      Femputer™ time!

  • momjones

    As the sister of a schizophrenic 60 year old brother (who was diagnosed when he was 20), I will say that I am with you, always, on each of these. I will also say, without equivocation, that mental illness is in every single extended family, and those of us who are living with this, or have lived through this, have been blessed, paradoxically, with empathy and ultimately compassion for anyone who suffers from this disability.

  • Bob D. Davis

    sniff my butt

  • Edify

    I haven’t spoken to my Dad since 2001 and it’s easier to live with as each year passes. It’s sad to read so many stories here of similar bad relationships but comforting when you see you aren’t the only one.

  • biggerthanthesound

    Thank-you Bethany! This hit home for me in a lot of ways. My ex-husband has not attempted to see our children in almost two months and my oldest was just crying about missing his dad yesterday. I made up my mind when he said he couldn’t do his visitation and he’d call when he could see the kids to leave it up to him to contact me. I was so heartbroken over my son’s sadness that I ALMOST called and arranged a visit. This list was what i needed to know that I’m on the right track… my children are better off without a severely mentally-ill parent who refuses to be medicated in their life.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Very welcome! I really feel for you all in this situation. :( My mom has talked about what would have happened if she never let us visit, and I am sure it would have helped some. I think just SEEING your kids (I felt like no one ever saw me) will make all the difference – you sound like you are a great, caring mom. :)

  • K.

    I wish you so much peace. You deserve peace.

    And I don’t know if this is going to be inappropriate or sound callous–I don’t mean it to be, and I’m sorry in advance, but you’re a writer and all, so…On another note, I’m a huge fan of YA lit: there’s a wonderful book by Nancy Werlin called “Rules of Survival” that was up for the National Book Award and it deals with a mentally ill parent. I don’t know if that’s too close to home or anything, but sometimes it can be cathartic and hopeful to learn that someone has approached your own demons and put them out there in the world. Makes you feel less alone.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you! That really means a lot, and that wasn’t callous at all! I love learning more about other experiences and will definitely check out the book.

  • Britavenger

    I am a long term lurker on Mommyish, but this article is so relevant to me that I feel I have to comment. My mum suffers from mental illness, and has since she had my older sister (20+ years). Her post natal depression continued, and is now just “standard” depression, as if there is such a thing. I wasn’t made officially aware of it until I was 19, when my mum finally let herself stop being “strong” and trying to hide what was wrong with her. Everything got too much for her, and she had a breakdown and talked about wanting to end it all. It probably sounds wrong, but it’s the bravest, and best thing she has ever done – talking about it.

    Looking back on when I was younger, there were events that now made sense; a reason that she didn’t come to school activities at the last minute, or had to back out of having my friends over for a sleepover. When my mum had her breakdown, she was brutally honest about her condition, and although it was traumatic at the time, I am so grateful that she was able to be so transparent about what was wrong with her. We now have an excellent relationship; she has up and down days, but I have a better understanding of why.

    Mum’s illness also highlighted to me what a phenomenal man my dad is. He was always aware of what she was suffering with, but shouldered her illness like a real hero. For years he propped her up when she was struggling, and ensured that my childhood was pretty damn good. It also had a huge effect on me; when I was called home to see my mum after she had her breakdown, I was at university and fairly aimless as to what I would do after I got my English degree. Seeing my mum struggling made me realise that I needed to do something with my life, and now I am very close to being a qualified English teacher. I talk about mental health honestly and openly with the kids I come into contact with, because I know that honesty and transparency are valuable tools when dealing with mental illness.

    Thank you for this post – it feels like a real gift.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing!! It is wonderful to hear a more positive perspective from your experience. :)

    • Britavenger

      No problem at all, I feel like every time I talk about it, another little weight gets lifted from my shoulders. I may be looking at my experience in a more positive way now that it is less severe (I’m guessing that you know better than most that these illnesses never really go away!) but I truly believe it has made me a stronger person. I look back at those seemingly endless, terrifying days that we blindly struggled through and it makes me think; if I got through that, then I can get through anything.

    • CanuckTeach

      This could be my life. Replace sister with brother and this is my childhood.
      And I am an English teacher. I have a unit that I do with the kids on mental illness. (Grade 11)
      We start with a mini-research project. They research a mental illness and then we share out. Then, we read “Sound of the Hollyhocks”. Then we watch Elyn Saks, a tale of mental illness from the inside. Then they create an image that represents what it is like to have a mental illness. Finally, (depending on the class), we write an essay asking: Would Elyn Saks’ advice (of excellent treatment, supportive friends and family and supportive work place) have helped Rock from “Sound of the Hollyhocks”?
      Don’t shy away from the hard stuff ever. The kids need us to talk about this and share our experiences.
      All the best. Teaching is one of the hardest but very rewarding careers.

    • momjones

      We English teachers have an important job, don’t we? There is nothing better than sharing our love of the written word. I always said, “All literature is about experience – when we read, we live the experience if we have never done so, we re-live the experience if it has happened to us, and finally, we know we are not alone if we do experience it much later because of what we have read. When I began teaching in 1974, my students didn’t talk about, nor did they know much about mental illness. I remember teaching “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the kids began to open up about their own experiences. Thank God kids are so informed today – they know they are not odd or alone if their parents, siblings, or they, themselves are suffering from mental illness.

    • Britavenger

      I know exactly what you mean about not shying away from this sort of topic; some of the more jaded teachers I have worked with have said in meetings that they are not comfortable talking to the kids in their forms about topics like mental health, and it makes me want to shake them. Ignoring these issues is not going to make them go away! I am really excited to start my teaching career though – and maybe one day make a move across to the US or Canada to share my unique brand of Brit wit teaching ;)

    • Psych Student

      That unit sounds amazing!

  • Zettai

    Hello my life. Every list item was dead on.

  • Guets

    This is so exactly what I’ve felt. It took me until fourth grade to understand why some days my dad was the absolute best and why some days I hated him with every fiber of my being. I couldn’t understand why my mom would stay with him when he hurt her and her kids. I couldn’t understand how he could treat his family like that. My memories of him as a kid are generally all bad. I remember once he was slapping my older brother on his sun burned shoulders and asking him if it hurt, and while I was standing there terrified I could see behind them the neighbors were in their back yard playing on the slip and slide. As a kid it was hard to understand why their lives were great and mine wasn’t. It certainly got worse before it got better. As an adult though I finally got an apology from him after calling the cops before I moved out. Our relationship is better though it will never be great because honestly I can’t deal with living like that and I think anyone who can is a damn saint.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thanks for sharing. <3

  • CanadianGurl

    My sister -in- law can’t understand why I have such a distant relationship with my mom. She has never known my mom when she wasn’t medicated and I shielded/protected my brother from the worst of it. He doesn’t remember the days that we went without food or the times that she just locked us out of the house without coats in winter. He doesn’t remember that I learned to cook so that when she was in a cycle, we would have food and hid jackets in the shed so we wouldn’t freeze. No, he remembers that because I was a little kid too and couldn’t really cope with the responsibilities of raising my brother, we fought like cats and dogs.
    So I’m the “bad sister”.
    But I am trying to repair the relationship with my mom. It’s hard because it’s a life time of hurt. And mental illness is stimatize in our society, so it’s hard to talk about with others. But I do. These are important conversations that we need to have.
    (and for my mental health, I ignore my sister-in-law, no one needs judgmental people in their lives who can’t be compassionate.)

    • Ashley Austrew

      I’m in a similar boat. I have two sisters (twins), and I shielded them from everything when they were very young. Now, they can’t understand why I want no contact with my mother, and they say things like, “Stop being so dramatic. You didn’t have it THAT bad. We all grew up in the same house, you know.” Going no contact with my mom has meant going no contact with them too because they side with her and defend her no matter what. Like you, I am the “bad sister.” It is incredibly lonely, but not nearly as lonely as trying to make a healthy relationship work with all of them and constantly butting up against a wall.

    • Rachel Sea

      My wife met my sister’s father during the six months when he was on meds for a pretty severe personality disorder. Even when he went back off the meds, she only saw him in public spaces, where he was inclined to be charming. She thought he was a great guy, and had a hard time at his memorial with all of us telling funny stories about what a horrible person he could be.

    • clarissa

      That’s very common with people with mental illness. They can act normal in public places, but the fake front fades at home. My dad always did that too. He had a job that involved meeting clients for most of my childhood, and he would come home with tickets to waterparks, plays yadayada, because he was oh so nice to them. My husband has only met my father twice, and as he also grew up around mental illness, he wasn’t fooled.(although his mother is on meds now and in therapy and is very loving).

  • CMP414

    I’m convinced both my parents have/had mental illness. My mom for sure is clinically depressed and abuses the medication. My dad was very violent and unpredictable and often behaves really in appropriately in public ie making sexual remarks in front of me and to my friends. I’m turning 33 next week and I still feel the effects of my childhood daily but I’m happy to know my kids have it way better

  • Beth

    My mother is an undiagnosed something or other, and I can really relate to alot of this post. I never knew when she might flip out, and she was physically abusive – so her flipping out was scary as fuck. She’s still like that, minus the physical abuse, because I’m the same size as her now and she knows I wouldn’t just take it anymore. I’ve always felt guilty for thinking that life would be easier if she were dead instead of crazy. But I’m pretty sure that’s true. Even when we’re having a good day, I’m waiting for the tide to turn – I can’t ever relax around her.

    • Bethany Ramos

      So sorry to hear this :(

    • Beth

      I’m sorry to hear everyone’s stories on this post, including yours. Imagine how much lovelier the world would be if people who need help could A) recognise it and B) receive what they need to get better! Broken people are everywhere, and the fall-out is tragic on so many levels. You’re a success story, which means you’re one tough mother, but there are many who aren’t – and they’ll probably never tell their stories. Thank you for telling yours; it makes a huge difference to know none of us are alone.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you – I truly appreciate it!! Sharing also makes me feel less alone. :)

    • momjones

      It’s very cathartic and terrifying at the same time when you verbalize to someone who is going through the same thing with a family member, “I wish he or she was dead,” and you both respond, in tears, “I know.”

    • Beth

      I havn’t yet been able to say that to anyone else in our family. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that ballsy. Maybe someone will say it to me first and I’ll get to be the “I know” person.

    • momjones

      The first time I said it was to a dear friend of mine who was going through some horrifying experiences with her mentally ill sister. I said to her, “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wishing she was dead.” She burst into tears and thanked me because someone else had finally said what she was thinking but too ashamed to admit.

    • Guest

      I have had that thought about a mentally ill family member as well; I suspected it was a common one but it is very reassuring to know that is true.

  • Joye77

    Both of my parents have a history of depression and anxiety issues when I was very young. And so do myself and my brother. But looking back on my childhood I really believe my mom should have been treated for something on a longer term basis, she was(is) a very moody and angry person that was borderline emotionally abusive and severely alcoholic. Was the alcoholism the cause or the effect? I don’t know, but she was certainly not normal. I didn’t even realize these things until I became am adult and was exposed to more normal families. I have been treated for depression for many years, I desperately don’t want to become my mom.

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    • CMJ

      Bad fucking form.

    • Hibbie

      What is with the bots lately?

  • keetakat

    Kids….and spouses.

  • JSThatcher

    Thank you so much for verbalizing what I’ve been trying to express for years! I don’t talk much about my mother, mostly because those who don’t know me well fail to understand my complete lack of affection for her.

    My mother was never actually diagnosed, but she was clearly mentally ill. My personal suspicion is that she suffered some sort of physical anomaly, as she was not breathing when she was born and was without oxygen for some minutes before being revived. No one thought to check for brain damage in the early 1920′s.

    Suffice it to say that all of your comments regarding the sudden temper tantrums and embarrassing public behavior are painfully accurate. In my mother’s case, these outbursts were mere punctuation marks in a life story characterized by a bizarre absence of logical thought, a preternatural sense of paranoia, a complete lack of empathy, a very grand narcissistic streak, and a set of neuroses far too long to enumerate.

    My sincerest apologies to all the mothers who read this Blog, but Mother’s Day still makes me cringe. All I remember when I think of my mother is the screaming, the scathing criticism, and the unrelenting dissonance between her personal universe and the real world. I’ve learned to understand and respect the affection others have for their mothers. I will never feel it.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  • Butt Trophy Recipient

    Stay strong Beth :)

  • mediocrity511

    As a pregnant, mentally I’ll woman this article makes me sad. I’d hate to think my child grew up resenting me for a disability!
    Thing is, my parents were both mentally I’ll too. It was tough at times, not going to deny that. But I’m a stronger, more caring and more compassionate person than I’d have been without their struggles. They are also both awesome parents, who have worked so hard to guide me through life. I can tell them anything and know they will not judge. We are closer than most other families.
    Mentally I’ll people can be good parents, they just face challenges that others don’t. I know I’ll need more support than some parents, but so would someone with a different disability like Spina Bifida.

    • Katherine Handcock

      Please don’t think that any of us think a mentally ill parent automatically equals a parent whose child will resent them! Bethany’s story is about the difficulty of a child’s life when the parent is dealing with uncontrolled mental illness – and when the child doesn’t know what is going on. A kid who doesn’t know why Mom or Dad is different from day to day, only that they can’t rely on Mom or Dad to be predictable or reliable, is in a very different boat than a child whose parent knows they need support and seeks it when it’s needed.

      I 100% believe that you can – and will – be a great parent.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I completely agree! Well said.

    • mediocrity511

      Thankyou, I guess it just scared me reading the comments of how many people don’t have contact with their parents over this.

      My illness is not always controlled, but the one thing I’ve got going for me is insight. I notice when I am going wonky and then I seek help.

    • Katherine Handcock

      The insight will 100% make an enormous difference. I have known people with parents dealing with severe mental illness, but who were able to look at their kids and say, “You know what? This is a really bad day. I’m going to call Grandma, and you can stay over at her house while I see about getting a doctor’s appointment.” That is absolutely no different from, say, a mom or dad with MS who says, “I’m having a flare-up, so since I can’t lift you today, Auntie So-and-So will be here all day.”

      By the way, you might want to check out the book “Virginia Wolf” (http://www.amightygirl.com/virginia-wolf for a description from the website I work for, A Mighty Girl). It’s a lovely picture-book fable that’s inspired by the real relationship between Virginia Woolf and her painter sister Vanessa. The story can be read as a “bad-day” sort of story, but it’s also one really good way to start a discussion about mental illness with younger children.

    • mediocrity511

      That book looks wonderful! For slightly older readers The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson is a good kids book tackling mental illness
      I definitely intend to be open and honest with my child, I already am with everyone else. I kept my illness secret for many years and that was so damaging, to me and to those close to me. I ended up in terrible situations.

    • Katherine Handcock

      I hope you enjoy it! I’ve read it, and it’s well done (and beautifully illustrated, too.)

      I think a great deal of the issue can be addressed with honesty. If you think about it, a kid who didn’t know about their parents’ diabetes could be equally freaked out by a parent who had strangely restrictive eating patterns, snuck off to give themselves injections, occasionally behaved oddly and/or collapsed, etc. Knowledge goes a long way to helping people overcome fear!

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      I think the “seeking help” part is crucial. I had both a mother and an ex who must, I think, have been aware that it wasn’t normal to be that depressed/anxious/apathetic, but were unwilling to take initiatives that might have helped alleviate the problem and thus make them tolerable to be around (ETA that my mother actually spent time in a mental health facility against her will, and one condition of her being allowed to leave was that she made regular visits to a therapist. She consistently boasted to me, however, about how good she was at manipulating her therapist away from addressing any of her issues). At this point, it’s almost a cliche to say that the first step in getting better is admitting that you have a problem, but that concept has become so ingrained because of the truth behind it.

    • Rachel Sea

      I don’t resent my parents, only that they never acknowledged their illnesses, and so never sought treatment – they still refuse to acknowledge that anything about my childhood was unhealthy. You know you have a mental illness and you seek treatment, that means that not only are you self aware, you are setting a good example if your kids have any mental health issues.

      As long as you are open with your kids about your mental health, I think the only resentments they will suffer will be nice typical things, like your refusal to get them an iPhone, or a pony.

    • G.S.

      My mom is bipolar (medicated and insightful), and me and my siblings don’t resent her at all. She was always honest about it (once she was officially diagnosed and on a treatment plan), and kept us in the loop, and now we even joke about it at times. She does still have her doubts though, and wondered if she would have even had kids if she knew she was bipolar before. My response? I’m glad she had us, I’m glad she’s my mom, and she did the best she could with what she had, which is all we could have asked for. Also, I suffered from Anxiety for a few years (and even though it’s MUCH better now, I still get freaked out sometimes and have the odd panic attack), and having a mom who knew what a panic attack was and what I was feeling really helped.

      March Break was a mess though, because she was supposed to come and visit me, my sister, and some other family members, but she just came down with a bad paranoia spell due to the issue in Ukraine, so she had to cancel last minute over an email, since the drugs she was taking made her too sleepy to drive the eight hours. One of the family members flipped total shit over it, and was totally angry that she “couldn’t have bothered” to pick up the phone, or not have called sooner (meanwhile, she couldn’t have called sooner because her condition was that bad, and she couldn’t have handled the conversation over the phone), and had disappointed everyone. I love this family member to death, and know from personal experience that not everybody understands what it’s like and some people think it’s just so easy to just “suck it up” and “feel better”, but it’s still really frustrating and disheartening when it’s coming from your own family (my grandmother also thinks that mental illnesses can be insta-fixed with fresh air, sunshine and omega 3).

  • Guest

    This is a difficult post for me to read right now, because my partner is dealing with mental illness (not diagnosed as yet, but it manifests with a combination of depression and anxiety, with occasional outbursts of anger.) Fortunately he is on the pathway to getting help, but unfortunately it seems like that help will be complicated to get: the recommended solution is a combination of medication and therapy, but the therapist he has already met with says that the work he has already done goes beyond what she provides already.

    It’s stressful for me because I’m working hard to help take some of the load off him, but I never know what will be the thing that will tip the scales. I also don’t know how to explain what’s going on to our kids, who are both in preschool. I see their own anxiety about his reactions – one of them, for example, will try to hide when something gets spilled/broken/whatever.

    If anyone has any recommendations for resources I can use for talking to the kids about this, it would be much appreciated! I have confidence that he will get the help he needs, but until that happens, I really want to help my kids understand that this is illness, not meanness/lack of caring.

  • Tea

    The worst thing for me has been realizing how much I’ve normalized. I was just talking with spouse-guy a few nights ago about how I’m being evaluated for PTSD, and how I don’t feel like I “earned” the diagnosis (Flawed reasoning, yes, I know) because I don’t see my childhood as having been that bad, but he’s horrified whenever I bring it up. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to be self sufficient in first grade, or to be physically harmed for doing the wrong thing, even when you didn’t know it was the wrong thing. The normalizing is the worst, because I see so much potential in myself to be physically abusive, because I genuinely didn’t know there was a better way to deal with people when I was upset or scared.

    My mother has BPD and Munchausen’s by proxy, and I think only in the last few years have I realized that she also has serious developmental issues. The jokes about me being smarter than my mom as a small child may not have been far off, and I think I was only loosely aware of it, but everyone starts life thinking their parents know best,
    and mine is cognitively and emotionally about 12 or 13, her sister is around 9. That bit of information has given me some clarity.

    Because evidently saying “Yeah, my mom basically waterboarded me once over hair product and that’s why I almost hit you when you tried to put coconut oil in my hair. I’m sorry, I jgot twitchy,” scares the shit out of normal people. But for me, it was just life, and every few years it looks like things are turning around or she’s doing better because she goes on some medication, or off one, or finds Jesus again, or some never ending line of bullshit that somehow gives me hope that I can have a normal relationship and not just describe my entire childhood as life with the world’s worst roommate.

    Oh look, another Tea novel/life story. Fuck, It’s too damned early for gin…

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you!! And I am so sorry. I love hearing your POV. :)

    • clarissa

      Not to be judgemental, but you might look into PTSD Your response to the coconut oil makes me think you might want to at least read about it.


      *not a doctor. Don’t claim to be one.

    • Psych Student

      I agree. Side note, while they may not be your experience, I found that knowing my diagnoses (anxiety and depression) helped me better understand what was going on in my own head and how to deal with it. I share this with you in the hopes that you might be able to embrace your diagnosis, should you get one.
      *Not yet a doctor. Haven’t met you, therefore can’t diagnose.

    • Psych Student

      I have talked to clients with abuse histories about when they first recognized that their life experience growing up wasn’t “normal” or, more importantly, acceptable behavior from the abusers. I think realizing that not everyone’s family looks like yours is something that each person figures out eventually (I don’t have a trauma history and it took me until high school to realize that many/most families don’t eat dinner together every night – it blew my mind!). Then, there is the added piece of being able to place blame/fault where it belongs (on the abuser). Then releasing the feelings of guilt over being angry with the abuser (I am doing lots of projecting here, and this is certainly not what happens with all people, or even most). It’s a really difficult process that can take a while.

  • Rachel Sea

    I vacillate between feeling like being the target of my mom’s paranoia wasn’t a big deal, and understanding that it was terribly unhealthy, but when I talk about my childhood with people who had normal parents, they’re aghast. My father’s acquired memory disorder felt so much more damaging, even though it literally wasn’t about me (he forgot most of my childhood) because I was thrust so suddenly into the role of caregiver. Because I wasn’t allowed to choose my own friends (lest someone tell the cops what my family was up to) I wasn’t around a lot of “normal” people, and it took a really long time for me to understand how damaging my mom was.

  • barefootwithoutagun

    This breaks my heart. I have bipolar disorder, which was suspected in childhood and finally diagnosed when I was 18, after a 2 year misdiagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (despite the strong, almost unbroken line of bipolar disorder running through my dad’s family). I’m now 30, with a 3 year old and another on the way.

    I live in terror every day of my son’s life, because no way, no how do I want that beautiful, charming, clever, funny little boy to end up like me. I don’t want his most vivid childhood memories to be of his mother, in the grip of psychosis. I don’t want him to remember the abusive relationship he was born into, or the numerous times I blacked out drunk, trying to numb the pain and forget the beatings. I don’t want that for him. I try my very best to contain this horrible illness and temper it with love.

    Bethany, I’m so sorry you had to grow up witnessing your dad’s torment. I wish you both all the luck in the world.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you! You sound like a very caring, loving mom. I wish you the best too!

    • Clarissa

      There’s two types of stories of mental illness. Some are like mine(posted in another comment) and some are like my husband’s. My husband grew up with a mom who has Anxiety(which manifests itself as OCD sometimes) and PTSD from abuse. During his childhood, it was often tough on him before his mom sought treatment. She was always loving, she just had problems with showing love in a way he could understand. He understood though that she was there for him, even if she did have problems. About the time he was 15, she got on meds that worked for her. She balanced out and now is a wonderful person to be around(even if she does start cleaning whenever she comes over and is a little jumpy) I actually have an anxiety disorder too and was abused in childhood, so I understand a lot of her issues too.

  • NotTakenNotAvailable

    Oh, boy, number 8. My mother died 7 years ago. As heartless as it sounds, I cannot help but conclude that it was really for the best as far as I was concerned–she could be manipulative and overbearing, and the fact that she did nothing about either her physical or mental health meant that something would have to be done about her sooner or later, and if I elected to focus on my mental health by putting her in a home rather than taking her into mine, I would’ve never heard the end of it when I called or visited. So yeah, 8(a) could very well be, “You feel guilty when your parent is irretrievably absent from your life, and you’re not grieving over it.”

  • ChillMama

    My parents have mental illnesses (undiagnosed), so on the one hand I totally get this because my childhood was not easy. You just never knew when it was going to blow.

    However, as a mother with a mental illness (diagnosed, receiving treatment) I admit that the title of this article hurt. I really hope that my own experience with mental illness will be a source of strength for my little one.

    I know you totally realize this Bethany, but I just want to reinforce that having a mental illness doesn’t doom you to being a bad/unpredictable parent. It’s seeking treatment that is so key. Maybe if people realized that distinction people would not be so reluctant to seek treatment, or have so much undeserved shame.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I am sorry that it hurt you, and I agree with what you are saying. You seem like you have a great perspective on your own illness and are doing an excellent job with your child.

  • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

    I’ve wondered from time to time if my dad was mentally ill. He’s certainly acted that way in spades. But who’s to say if it’s substance abuse alone, substance-induced mental illness, or him medicating mental illness with substances.
    He’ll never see a doctor or a therapist, so we’ll never know.

    What I do know is that I relate strongly to this list.

    • Bethany Ramos


  • G.E. Phillips

    Yikes. All of the things, they are hitting so close to home today….

  • Clarissa

    This is exactly how I felt throughout my life. My dad was clinically depressed and had serious anger issues, and my mom was also depressed and my brother had bipolar/schizophrenic affective disorder . My dad tried to commit suicide several times, lashed out at me and my siblings, physically and emotionally abused us, threatened to kill me several times, and just generally was detached. This all started when I was about 9.
    I used to hate him. I used to wish he had succeed in taking his life, because it meant it would be over. I would spend nights at my friends houses whenever my mom would work, and sleep in my mom’s room when she was home, so he wouldn’t wake up mad and come get me up. I lived with other families for 2 year, 8 month and ten month periods throughout my teenage years, whenever it would get really bad. He mixed pain killers, anti-depressants and alcohol. Sometimes sleeping medicine too. this knocked him out alot of the time, but if you woke him, prepare to get screamed at.
    My mom was depressed, so she didn’t do anything about it other than send meto live somewhere else. She also didnt know about the worst of it.
    My dad had awesome moments. Playing cards, watching tv, joking around. He was awesome out in public, so not a lot of people believed me. He’d be the proud fatherat plays and dance recitals. Eventually, I began to hate the good moments too, because i knew it wouldnt last. I started to envy my sister was 8 years older than me, because she missed the worst of it. My older brother turned to drugs and partying. He bounced back and forth between jail, couch surfing and our house. My little brother locked himself in his room and avoided everyone.
    When I was 18, my mom left him. My older brother killed himself on feb 11, 2013. He said two people were to blame, his wife and dad. (i realize no one is actually to blame) He shot himself with my dad’s gun in my dad’s house. my dad’s gotten even worse now. He took it hard.He’s unemployed. He’s started hoarding.(he did this to an extent before, hiding money, filling up the garage, covering dressers and tables with junk, but now its worse.) hes never eaten well, but he has gained about 60 lbs in the last year. He’s 50 and looks 75. I’ve forgiven my dad now, but he doesn’t want to see us. I doubt he live another 5 years. I just don’t know if his health, his meds, or his gun will do it.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I am so, so sorry for your loss. This is heartbreaking.

    • Clarissa

      thank you

  • C.J.

    My mother suffers from severe anxiety, to the point it is called anxiety personality. She started trying to get help when my younger sister was a year old. She tried to tell her doctor how she was feeling only to be told she was being illogical and it was just the baby blues. It was the early 80′s and anxiety really being diagnosed a whole lot. She tried periodically over the next few years to tell the doctor something was wrong with her then just gave up. When I was 10 my grandfather died of cancer, that put my mom over the edge. My mother started self medicating with alcohol. By the time I was 14 it was a nightly event. My dad tried everything he could think of to help her but with no support from doctors there was only so much he could do. When I was 14 dad told her he was going to take us kids and leave if she didn’t let him take her to the hospital, by this time she had totally given up trying to get help and wanted to just self medicate. He didn’t really plan to leave her but he knew that would be the one thing that would get her to go. She spent some time in the hospital and slowly started to get better. She will be on medication for the rest of her life for anxiety and she has learned to live with it. It took her a few years of therapy to start being able to really live life again. I remember how angry I was with her when she was in the hospital, I refused to go see her. Dad tried his best to try to explain it to me but I was a teenager and just couldn’t understand how she could do the things she did. My mother and I were eventually able to heal our relationship, my mother tried very hard to heal it. I don’t blame her anymore. She was a good mom that went through a bad time. It was the love she had for us kids that made her fight so hard to get better. She was so bad when she went in to the hospital that the psychiatrist later said he was surprised she wasn’t catatonic. I give my mom a lot of credit for how hard she fought to get better. I give my dad a lot of credit for standing by her and helping her get better, many people just walk away. I am still bitter with the doctor that wouldn’t help her all those years ago when she was just 23 and could have been treated easier. I still have a hard time being around her when she is drinking now but that’s my problem not hers. She doesn’t drink to self medicate anymore.

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  • Psych Student

    I suffer from mental illness (anxiety and depression), I don’t have kids yet but hope to within the next few years, and my first instinct was to be terrified and horrified. Then, I took a breath, realized that everything on the internet isn’t about me, and looked at what I could learn from this incredibly brave author. Firstly, I am much more stable than the author’s father. I am medicated and seeing a therapist. I also have the benefit of having an *amazing* wife I can talk to about anything and who helps me make it though my bad days. I also (I know this all sounds like bragging, but that’s ok) have the great privilege of a long education. Again, thanks to education (grad school in psychology) plus therapy results in insight that allows me to recognize when I’m having a bad mental health day. I can realize that I’m feeling crazy and that my emotions are a bit out of whack, which is when I *really* lean on my wife. I am able to do what I need to do (usually have a good cry and a nap) until my emotions settle back out again.

    So, what did I learn from this article. “Having a mentally ill parent is like having a physical illness you can’t talk about”. My wife and I can help reduce the stigma of mental health by being open with our children about it. We are both prepared for me (she who will carry the baby(ies) to suffer from PPD and will be on the look out for it. Just was we can’t pretend like I don’t have problems, we want to be honest with our kids. We certainly don’t want to put adult problems on them, but as they get older, they can better understand that one of their mom’s suffers from anxiety and depression. We will also be on the lookout for any mental disorders in them (and in my wife, who has a history of anxiety and depression a well, as well as a couple phobias that we are working on treating before kids). We’ll do what we can, without burdening the kids too much, to explain that mom is sad and having a hard time and that it’s not because of them. I think the most important part is to keep in treatment and keep as healthy as possible.

    “You feel guilty when you wonder if it’s better to have an absent parent or a mentally ill parent”. This is all about normalizing those feelings for the kids. When one of us is having a particularly bad day, it’s important to let the kids talk about how hard it is or them (preferably to their own therapist as well as us). We can’t expect them to feel good when their parent is suffering and they need to be allowed to think about what the alternatives might be without being shamed.

    “You feel guilty when you wish for a physical disability because it seems easier”. This is the same situation. It might help if we occasionally talk about how sometimes *we* think a physical disability might be easier (a thought that comes from not having a physical disability – always want something other than we have).

    Thank you Bethany, so much for sharing your story! It helps me as a future parent, and as a future psychologist better understand the needs of children of parents who have mental illnesses. I hope you sought therapy as well to help deal with the pain you experienced. Thanks again Bethany!

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you so much for your comment and insight – it really made me happy! I am in therapy now and meditate for anxiety, and it helps so much. You sound like you are very self-aware, and I know you and your wife will be excellent parents!

    • Psych Student

      Thank you so much! *hugs* :)

  • jo

    I am so glad I finally read this. It is hard to hear all of this laid out because I think us kids are usually just as much in denial as the parents. Way to be brave and put it all out here like this though :-) your courage inspires me all the time.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you!!

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  • Mel

    My mother is currently very mentally and physically ill, and refuses to go to the doctor. I’m 19, and I’m in constant fear of being thrown out for bringing up important topics like the fact that she needs to get disability, the hoarder-ish house full of paper and unneeded junk, etc. She gets to stressed out and thinks I’m trying to harm her, that I’m ‘against her’ in the constant battle with living with her. She demands help with groceries and daily tasks, which I wouldn’t mind if I had a say in them. I can’t go to school for the fear or being kicked out on the streets lurking around in this house, and finding work and a reliable place to live around here is beyond hard, borderline impossible. She has no friends in the area, only ones she’s met and spoken to for year on the internet and phone. No adult besides a very few number of my friends know or can help her. I love her, but I’m resenting that she isn’t getting the help she needs and isn’t letting or helping me begin my life as an adult.

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